An architectural drawing of the City of Madison’s proposed Georgetown Memorial Park on Walnut Street to honor and recognize the city’s role in the Underground Railroad and African-American conduct0r George DeBaptiste. (Image courtesy Georgetown Memorial Park Project.)
An architectural drawing of the City of Madison’s proposed Georgetown Memorial Park on Walnut Street to honor and recognize the city’s role in the Underground Railroad and African-American conduct0r George DeBaptiste. (Image courtesy Georgetown Memorial Park Project.)
Madison City Council Tuesday approved resolutions supporting a grant application to create a Walnut Street park recognizing a Madisonian prominently involved in the Underground Railroad and also said yes to a restructuring of the city’s Tax Incremental Finance zone.

Later, near the close of the regular public meeting, Mayor Bob Courtney heard feedback from a city resident questioning the city’s response to provide emergency shelter to the city’s homeless population during recent dangerously cold weather.

The Walnut Street park resolution came after a public hearing on the proposed Georgetown Memorial Park, which will convert a lot now used for parking into a historic destination celebrating and recognizing the role African-American George DeBaptiste played in the Underground Railroad as an active conductor in the 1830s and 1840s in Madison.

The park, which will include brick pavers, green space, trees and flowers, benches and a bronze bust of DeBaptiste, is seeking $336,784 from the city’s $2 million overall award in Community Development Block Grant funds as part of the Stellar Communities program announced earlier. Some funds have been raised to help match the grant and the city will earmark $99,823 to cover some areas not covered by the grant.

Valecia Crisafulli, board president of the Madison Main Street program, said her group supports the project. She noted Madison is full of unique stories — especially the city’s role in the Underground Railroad — and DeBaptiste is “a very important story about Madison.”

The council unanimously approved the resolution. The project will actually seek the funding through the Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA) and the application will be submitted as soon as possible.

The council also unanimously approved a resolution seeking approval to amend the city’s Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) zone to address and correct a situation that is creating a negative incremental assessed value in parts of the zone.

The measure, which was approved by the city’s Plan Commission last week, will add about $11 million in value to the TIF zone and generate additional funds for projects supported by the TIF. The cost to property owners will be about $20 per year based on a home valued at about $100,000, Bob Cooke, the city’s human resources and purchasing director, said after the meeting.

Cooke said the move would generate between $275,000 and $300,000 annually to be used to generate more business and industry — and related jobs — in the community. He said undertakings like redeveloping the long-idled Armour Plastics plant at Clifty Drive and SR 7 for use by SuperATV for a company expansion and the redevelopment and salvage of the former Cotton Mill building on Vaughn Drive as a Fairfield by Marriott hotel are two projects indicative of the TIF zone’s impact through using those dollars to secure economic development tax increment revenue bonds.

During the public comment period at the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Michael Greco of the 1100 block of East Street, spoke to the mayor and council about his concerns on the homelessness problem in Madison.

He said he realizes that assistance was needed for the city’s homeless population during a recent dangerously cold wave to “keep people from freezing” but that the individuals using the service — initially the opening of the city’s Convenience Station on Main Street and later the opening of city’s heated restroom facility at Bicentennial Park at Vaughn Drive and West Street — were taking advantage of the courtesy by drinking beer on the premises and urinating on the building. He also noted that it appeared that what had been offered as overnight shelter from the cold had been extended to additional hours.

Greco said homeless people need more than shelter. They need assistance in geting an identification card and Social Security number and help getting sober enough to hold a job and work their way out of their situation. He said the city’s police need to start enforcing ordinances penalizing abuses like drinking and urinating in public.

“If I was drinking in public or urinating in public I’d be arrested,” he noted, adding that the city is looking the other way and allowing the homeless to abuse Madison’s hospitality.

“We are taking all measures in the absence of anything better ... to protect life,” Courtney said, adding that the city, the Salvation Army, local non-profits and concerned citizens are working to develop and execute a better plan for dealing with the issue but that it is a “fluid situation and we are learning as we go.”

Courtney said the city is also “collecting data that’s been missing in the past” to better identify who is homeless, where are they from and what do they need.

“We’re finding that most of them have family here but for some reason, they won’t go there,” the mayor noted.

Courtney said the city is not operating a shelter — and cannot engage in operating a shelter — but it can open the heated bathrooms at Bicentennial Park, which he said the city has determined to be the only suitable city property that can be used, to provide relief from life-threatening cold for the homeless or anyone.

Courtney noted the city has determined that keeping the restrooms open 24 hours a day during the winter is not a suitable option so moving forward, the facility will be locked during the day and open from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. on any night that the temperature is expected to be below 32 degrees.

However, Courtney also said, efforts to re-establish homeless relief at the Salvation Army are progressing, the number of volunteers and funding needed to do that has been established, funding is being identified and volunteers have stepped forward to be trained to help, so a better option for the homeless moving forward is in the works.

Courtney also said the community needs to provide more than basic shelter, citing a system to obtain identifications for the homeless, assistance with alcohol and drug dependencies and a path to finding a job to help reduce the homeless numbers.
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